Sunday, October 25, 2009

Apprenticeship

Hi gang! This week I'll be talking about how my first and subsequent story drafts have come to be. Stay tuned to see what the others will tackle!

I often see new people at the CompuServe Books and Writers Forum posting pieces of their work for comment and asking a very loaded question- should I keep going with this writing gig? Or should I just give up?

In other words, they want other people to tell them if they have the talent to tell a story, or if they really can't string two words together.

But it's not that easy.

No matter how long you've been writing, you still have plenty to learn. That's never more true than when you're just starting out, but it doesn't become less relevant as you go along, either. And though you can read dozens of craft books, take classes, talk to agents and authors, there's only one way you're going to get better at it- by writing, and writing plenty.

Sadly this means you may have to accept that what you first put out is not all that good. That's where I am at the moment.

I churned out a 120,000 word first draft of BETWEEN THE LINES in just over six months after joining the Forum. I was so enthused to find myself surrounded by other writers, and so buoyed up by positive feedback on my work, that I just couldn't stop writing. It was wonderful. I just put out words and words and words and words. I wrote without looking back, and it was extremely freeing. I recommend it as a first draft approach to anyone- don't review your stuff (in detail) until it's done.

But be prepared that when it's done, it's very possible your bubble might get burst. When I sat down and re-read my 120,000 words, it was less a complete story, and more a demonstration on learning how to write. There was no flow. The pace of most of my scenes was very average, to say the least. My characters were pretty good, but my dialogue was awful. It got progressively better the more I wrote- I could see the progress- but after a lot of attempting to squeeze and shape what I had, I was left with one conclusion- it nearly all had to go.

And gone it mostly is. Instead of editing what I've written, I'm starting from scratch. Except this time I know I'm starting with infinitely better skills, and I also know how to edit my work as I go. Instead of giving up on this book as the "doorstop" that will never see the light of day, I plan to set aside the first draft only, and put my renewed everything into my second draft.

No great revelations here, I suppose- just know that if you're starting out at writing, it's okay to write bad stuff to start with, as long as it keeps getting better. Nobody else can tell you whether it's worth persisting with- you'll know that if you a) read plenty of books and absorb good language, and are therefore able to realistically assess your own work; and b) if you can't get your story out of your head, and you love the journey it's taking you on (whether you love the actual butt-on-chair part so much or not!).

And one day you'll get to a point where you realise you actually know what you're doing. You'll still have plenty to learn, but you'll know that your story is taking you somewhere great.

13 comments:

  1. Claire--

    Excellent post! I think you've made a very important point here. I know as a new writer, I shuddered at the idea of actual rewrites/revisions. I mean, when I finished my first novel I was _flying_ high for weeks, completely convinced I had spun gold from straw. The very idea that it wasn't perfect was something that bounced right out of my ears and hit the ground running. I'm sure some of my first betas FELT very abused. WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT ISN'T READY TO QUERY?! (g)

    Ahhh, the ignorance I knew then. It was so wonderful. :)

    I completely agree that you should just push through your first novel -- enjoy it. Savor it. Relish the fact that you've finished a book--something a lot of people SAY they want to do but never actually do. It's a HUGE accomplishment.

    But you also need to know that it's going to take revisions to get it to a good place. And then some more...and even more after that. But DO NOT worry about this while you're writing it. Just finish.

    To all the newbie writers -- coming from someone who has torn her first novel to shreds and probably cut 95% of it -- It Gets Easier. I promise. Once you take that leap and cut one of the scenes you LOVE with all your heart because deep down you KNOW it doesn't work for whatever reason, you can do it again. And the great thing? It gets easier to SPOT the things that aren't working.

    And as Claire said, sometimes a story just won't leave you. So keep working at it.

    Jen

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  2. Very true! Perhaps that's what writing from a very young age has spared me - since I never considered agents and querying and actual *gasp* publishing, beyond pipe dreams (and some poetry submitted to The New Yorker, which earned a very very quick form rejection!) and student newspapers, I was able to hang on to that glorious "look, I finished a novel" feeling over many different stories. Got a lot of practice under my belt and many more years of reading other, really good published authors.

    Then I found the Forum, and wondered why I wasn't taking things to the next level. And that's when the real work came in. I wasn't writing the crappy first drafts I'd done in high school and university, but I had to realise that I still wasn't writing 100% genius stuff either. It seems to be that, if you're willing to learn, jumping from the badly written stuff to the higher levels isn't so hard - it's getting to the top of your game in the higher levels that requires a much steeper learning curve and a lot more practice.

    But, as you say Jen, if the story won't leave you, you've just got to keep doing your best with it. And it's all such good fun!

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  3. Thanks for the post Claire,
    This is exactly where I am at right now. I initially started my second go around trying to rework scenes that I'd already written, trying to shove them into this mold that I thought my story was, but found myself writing most things from scratch. It feels like I started all over again but like you said - it's with a much clearer picture of how it all works.

    I'm glad I'm not the only one doing it this way - for a while I kept thinking - this is the wrong way - after a first draft you shouldn't have to do all this arranging, all this writing from scratch - but it NEEDED it. I couldn't attack rewrites any other way. Some days it feels like pulling teeth but getting on a roll with a second draft is as sweet as it was the first time!

    Keep these great posts coming. I've enjoyed every one of them so far (Even if I don't comment all the time).

    Heidi

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  4. "I just put out words and words and words and words. I wrote without looking back, and it was extremely freeing. I recommend it as a first draft approach to anyone- don't review your stuff (in detail) until it's done."

    I think there's something about accepting that it's not going to come out perfect the first time that's very liberating - you're free to pour out words on the page and not worry whether it all fits together or makes sense.

    Funny you titled this "apprenticeship" on a day when I'd been researching just what in world William actually did as a C19th plumber. I discovered in passing that until 1814, plumbing apprenticeships lasted 7 years! My writing apprenticeship has already been much longer...

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  5. Claire, this is my exact experience in writing my SFD.

    I wrote 70k of what turned out to be boring back story; chucked it out, started again. Even now, when I'm nearing the end of my SFD, I know the first half needs re-writing (you should see the pages and pages of notes I have on changes and tweaks and whole new scenes! LOL) For me - and I've heard other writers say the same - it's only when you reach the end of your SFD that you can look back and think "So *that's* what my story is really about!"

    And call me strange, I'm dying to get into the editing and cutting and slashing and re-writing. Or call me an ex- lawyer with a red pen habit!

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  6. Claire, I SO get this! Your experience mirrors my own of much -it's almost like a flashback. LOL.

    And I don't think ANYONE wants you to let go of BTL! I know I don't!

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  7. Jen- WHAT DO YOU MEAN IT ISN'T READY TO QUERY?!- ROFL!! Oh, yes indeed. I remember very well when I sent you betas my *outline*, let alone my actual SFD, all ready for you to come back and say, "AWESOME! Total Booker prize winner right here." And instead you were all very gentle and kind and told me it suuuucked. Lots. Which it did. And I was all, WHAT? It WHAT? Now I look back at it and I think, thank goodness you're all such good kind people, because I probably wouldn't have been very nice to me if I'd got that :D

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  8. Deniz- *How hard* is it to accept that no matter your level, there's always a level above you? I know it's incredibly difficult for me. I must admit, through high school and university I consistently refused to take writing classes because I believed they couldn't teach me anything I didn't know (ego much? Lol). But now I understand that it's not even a case of what you know- it's about how much you *practise* the actual putting together of words.

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  9. Heidi- I know exactly what you mean. I thought the same thing, too- surely this isn't a good way to do things, to write it all then scrap it all? Surely I must be able to tweak here and there and it'll all fall into place?

    But no. It obviously works for some people, but for me I think I had to let it all out, and then burn it (mostly (g)).

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  10. Helen- fascinating to compare William's journey to yours, because you're so right. The writer's apprenticeship is by nature a very long one- a lifetime, I guess.

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  11. Rach- I think there's a lot of value in having a stack of backstory, even if you never use it. So much of figuring this out is knowing where to start the story, isn't it? I find that incredibly hard at times- I want to *show* people what's happening before the main event, but I really need to have faith that it will be clear in the end.

    Still, knowing how good your backstory is, your main story must be pretty bloody wonderful (g).

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  12. Kristen- no way I'm letting go of BTL. I've thought about it in the past, but it just won't leave me be.

    I'm being mentally stalked by Bill. Lol.

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  13. "I'm being mentally stalked by Bill. Lol."
    Thank goodness for the rest of us, since we get to read about him! :-)

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